234 of 239 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 1998
The style is direct and unpretentious. The message is simple but extraordinarily powerful: life is short, the past and the future are inaccessible, pain and pleasure have no meaning, but inside each one of us there is a ruling faculty that is touched only by itself. Only that which makes us better capable of confronting our condition with resolution and courage can be said to be good, and only that which makes us worse and more unsatisfied can be said to be bad. The only thing that is of any importance is our own private quest for perfection, which no external power can ever destroy. Marcus Aurelius delivers many insightful and inspirational observations about human nature and the human condition, and he makes an excellent rational argument for seeking the good and for acting modestly and continently. I cannot think or a more satifying and moving work, and it is all the more poignant because it was written by a man who wielded almost absolute power and lived surrounded by the luxury, yet managed to keep things in perspective and to occupy himself only with what truly matters. One sentence captures perfectly the spirit of his writings: "Where a man can live, there he can also live well." An extraordinary testimony of wisdom and fortitude.
126 of 127 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2010
Other reviewers here have commented about the work itself, so I would just add a note about this specific translation.
One of the most difficult tasks for a reader interested in non-English language work (and works from classical times in particular) is to choose an appropriate translation. Of course, what counts as `appropriate' is somewhat subjective.
What I was looking for was a translation that is clear and accurate; one that manages to convey something of a feeling for the both the person who wrote, and the times they wrote in. In this Staniforth excels.
Unlike say, the Benjamin Jowett translation of Plato which (at least to my ears) has a distinctly Victorian ring, or the popular new age paraphrases of many of the Stoics (and in truth they are paraphrases or adaptations rather than translations), to me Staniforth (whose translation dates from 1964) strikes just the right balance.
The words of Marcus Aurelius are rendered intelligibly and with a dignity and awareness of the historical context. The reader is neither forced to re-read and ponder (i.e., speculatively re-translate), nor wince at inappropriate colloquialisms of 21st century English. Better still, one can immediately perceive and appreciate the times in which the work was written. No mean accomplishment, to say the least.
Of course, each reader needs to make this judgment for themselves. Amazon provides an excellent (and free) way of doing this with its `search inside this book' feature, which is enormously useful for anyone making this decision.
70 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2003
The Meditations are terse statements, aphorisms, notes, even reminders. Some are like fragmented dialogues, which I find fascinated. Some are very hard to get a hold of. Others remarkably clear. Summarizing them is hard, and surely misleading, but they seem frequently to stand against illusions and mistaken judgments, especially in the face of frustration, desire, fear, and anger. The positive dimension of this is harder to describe (maybe because I have yet to know it firsthand): calmness, purpose, self-control, and a true reckoning of what will matter in the end, as understood in terms of the harmony and essential order of all things. He can be difficult in places, but at other times it is as though he sees into your soul.
I think Marcus Aurelius will strike readers very differently based on where they are coming from. Some readers will resonate with his insistence on self-awareness, equanimity, and responsibility for one's own mental state and reactions. Other readers will be attracted by his ethical standards, commitment to the common good, and sense of divine harmony in all events. Others will simply enjoy his sobering reflection and insightful commentary on human nature. Historians will be fascinated with a look into the mind of a Roman emperor, seemingly untouched by the affairs of state (they are hardly mentioned in the text). Philosophers will enjoy learning about Stoic thought in praxis and how he's picked up the thought of other Greek thinkers (Epictetus, Chrysippus, Heraclitus, etc). Perhaps one of the most amazing things is how he might appeal equally to readers from very different backgrounds, a testament to the complexity of his thinking.
This particular edition comes with a very good introduction that answers questions of history, religion, philosophy, and thematic ideas. I highly recommend it to those interested in Marcus Aurelius and his philosophical thought. In addition, Gregory Hays is a masterful translator who, I think, has taken care to convey the meaning of the original Greek in appropriate English counterparts.
The first chapter is a beautiful one that describes Marcus Aurelius' gratitude to the many people that have positively influenced him, in each case telling what it is that he gained from them. Might we do the same someday ourselves? Though it is highly selective for me to do so (leaving out big chunks of what the book is like, especially the more obviously Stoic in form and content--such as the fleeting transience of life), below are just a few of my favorite quotes.
"The best revenge is not to be like that."
"You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they'll still go on doing it."
"It was for the best. So nature had no choice but to do it."
"Forget the future. When and if it comes, you'll have the same resources to draw on--the same Logos."
"Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren't aiming to do the impossible. --aiming to do what then? --To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished."
"Think of yourself as dead. You've lived your life. Now take what's left and live it properly."
"...people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own--not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him..."
257 of 279 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2000
"Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will, and selfishness-all of them due to the offenders' ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother; therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading" (To Himself, II.1). This selection from "Meditations" ("To Himself" was the original Greek title)captures so much of the essence of this incredibly powerful book. Marcus Aurelius at times sounds more like the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Hesiod, or James Allen than he does his Stoic forerunners: proof once again that true wisdom resides in every man's heart and mind and transcends the boundaries of time, place, ethnicity,and doctrine. The job of the philosopher is to reintroduce his pupils to THEMSELVES, and once the self is realized, the reality of the universe becomes much clearer ("evil" derives from delusions)and the temptations of excess and the fears of deprivation become less powerful. These are true words to live by, more so now than they have ever been before. Happiness can be found in simplicity; hard work DOES pay off; the cooler head always prevails; immoderate pleasures can kill and fear is often unfounded. Marcus, like Buddha, was born in the lap of luxury, but he was destined to hold a position in society for which he was not well suited by virtue of his sensitive and studious nature: the ruler of an ancient and corrupt civilization that dominated most of the known world. "Meditations" is Marcus's attempt to cope with a life and a job that he never really wanted. Thankfully, we can apply Marcus's self conversation to the trials and tribulations of everyday life (the same can not be said for most other volumes of Greco-Roman philosophy, and this is especially the case with the over dogmatic Plato). I urge you to read this. Once you do, I guarantee you will read it over and over again and it will take its place on your list of personal, life changing favorites. One last thought: keep in mind that Marcus was a pagan and don't let the fact that Bill Clinton enjoyed the book sway you from buying it... For those interested in the life of Marcus Aurelius the man, also read his biography in Volume 1 of the Loeb edition of the Scriptores Historiae Augustae.
92 of 100 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2004
It was interesting to see that one reviewer went looking for a copy of the Modern Library edition of "Meditations" as a gift, and had to settle for a different translation.
There was a time when many publishers had in print their own editions -- usually "gift editions," in a range of prices -- of the little book, "To Himself," by the second-century Roman patrician Marcus Annius Catilius Severus (121-180 C.E.), known after his marriage as Marcus Annius Verus -- almost always titled something like "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and most commonly some version (little choice disguised as many choices) of George Long's 1862 translation of the Greek original, originally published as "The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus."
For Marcus, besides receiving an excellent education in Greek, which he seems to have used as naturally as Latin, went on, through a process of adoption and co-optation, to rule the Roman Empire, beginning in 161 with the death of Antoninus Pius, his uncle, who had adopted him as heir, using a third version of his name. For moderns, he is usually just Marcus Aurelius; I found it a bit of shock to see him as just another "Antoninus" in ancient texts.
Under any name, he has been popular, at least with publishers; even now, there seem to be something like sixty versions in English of this book available on Amazon, even though many *are* out of print (and most seem to be of the same few older translations). As usual, a number of these editions and translations are grouped by Amazon for review purposes, and I will mention some. If you find this, or someone else's, review of one translation under a different heading, PLEASE remember that, as Marcus Aurelius saw, some things really are beyond our control.
It should require more thought to understand Marcus than it does to follow the English version. The Modern Library's current offering, a new translation by George Hays, is based on modern text editions, and seems to be both an excellent first introduction to the book, and graceful reading for those with no interest in looking further. It has brief but helpful notes, and a glossary of names, which helps keep the notes short and to the point. Some will follow his references to more advanced treatments, including textual as well as philosophical problems.
As for Marcus Aurelius, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest, and certainly the most morally and intellectually impressive, of all Roman Emperors. Gibbon tended to see the Empire's real decline as subsequent to his death, a view not without its reflection in the recent motion picture "Gladiator." The transitions by appointment from Trajan to Hadrian to Antoninus Pius to Marcus produced one of the most successful set of reigns in history (if mainly from a strictly Roman and Imperial point of view). It is perhaps the best historically-documented counterpart of the Chinese tradition of the Sage Emperors who chose as heirs the Most Virtuous (or Most Effective) subjects, instead of favored sons.
The policy had precedents in Roman history, although none so successful for so long. Family loyalty was admired, and inheritance gave access to key property, including the slaves in the bureaucracy, and the loyalty of followers (veteran soldiers, freedmen and other clients); yet the whole dynastic principle was suspect as un-Roman. It was in part accidental, Antoninus, for example, himself almost a last-minute substitute, having no son to be his heir. Marcus Aurelius designated his son Commodus as successor, with less fortunate consequences, after the death of his first choice; although Commodus' evil reputation may reflect his political and military failures, and the interests of his successors, as much as his personality.
So one might expect from the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius some manifesto on statesmanship, or imperial strategy, or at least good government. In fact, his twelve books (booklets, really) of little notes "to himself" contain reflections on fate, on moral lessons from classical literature, on religion, on human nature. They are probably the last thing one would expect of a Supreme Autocrat and Generalissimo.
Nor are they an exposition of a philosophic system; no surprise that some reviewers, apparently expecting one, have found them unsatisfying.
The first three books have titles (some are subscripts in the manuscript tradition, but, like Hays, I think they are misplaced). "On the River Gran, Among the Quadi," refers to a campaign on the borders of the empire. If it is the heading of Book Two, the lack of any explicit reference therein to the hard-fought German campaign is worth pondering. Was this what the Emperor considered truly important? What he wanted us to think he thought was important? (But there is internal evidence that he had no intention of making any of it public.) What he preferred to think about when he could get away from the war for a few moments? It should be remembered that he was a successful campaigner.
Hays' clear translation into modern English joins a number of post-Long translations. Older versions include the important version with commentary of A.S.L. Farquharson (Oxford, 1944, out of print; his translation with new introduction, etc., World's Classics, 1990, and Oxford World's Classics, 1998), and two competitors for the student and general reader markets, respectively, by G.M.A. Grube (originally Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963) and Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Classics, 1964), which have been in and out of print (but mostly in) for four decades. Of these, I much prefer Hays -- although the additional material in the World's Classics edition(s) is worth a look. (Staniforth, by the way, says that "a couple of generations ago" major publishers had "elegant miniature" editions of classics, usually including the "Meditations" -- those I remember from the 1960s themselves were full-sized, and distinguished only by gilt edges and/or slipcovers and/or presentation pages.)
It also joins the highly-praised contemporary version, "The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations," translated by David Hicks and C. Scott Hicks (2002; not seen).
It competes as well with a fairly recent (1993) Dover Thrift Edition of the George Long translation, revised (and not for the first time) to modernize his mid-Victorian English and untangle his somewhat convoluted fidelity to (a long-obsolete edition of) the Greek. That Long was not very readable was probably not of much concern to those who used to buy and give (and possibly receive) editions designed to suggest educated tastes; certainly not to the sellers. Long's concern for accuracy should be emulated, but turning relatively clear Greek into opaque English doesn't seem the best way to achieve the goal. (In all fairness, what was plain enough language in mid-Victorian England / Civil War America may now seem obscure for other reasons.)
The novelist Mary Renault thought that Marcus' example refuted Lord Acton's view that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but the most remarkable lesson of the "Meditations" is that Marcus Aurelius did not believe that he HAD absolute power. He had been chosen and groomed for a role he had been taught to accept as a duty, and regarded it as both an obligation and an imposition. For Marcus was a Stoic -- not in the commonplace sense of someone who repressed his feelings or endured pain without expression, but in the original sense of a follower of philosophy that offered a quasi-religious approach to life. Hays usefully points out (with helpful bibliography) that Marcus was, in the manner of his time, eclectic, but grants that, if asked, he would have identified himself with Stocism.
The movement was founded by Zeno of Citium (or Kition), born on Cyprus (about 336 B.C.E.) in a family said to be part Phoenician, who taught in the Stoa Poikile, or "Painted Walkway," in Athens, from some point after 313 to his death about 261 B.C.E. It was one of the key movements of Hellenistic times, and found a ready reception among upper class Romans as well. Teaching calm in the face of stress, and endorsing acceptance of public obligations, including religion, it is traditionally paired with, and contrasted to, Epicureanism, which taught avoidance of excessive pain and pleasure, withdrawal into private life, and the pointlessness of traditional religion. (Not hedonism, as popularly imagined; nor did it deny the existence of gods, only that they had any interest in anything so trivial and base as human concerns.)
For those who find the "Meditations" intriguing but unsatisfying, works by other Stoics may be more fulfilling; there are some excellent recent volumes translating and interpreting Marcus' older contemporary, Epictetus, a slave who set an example to the rulers of the western world -- but that would be another review.
62 of 67 people found the following review helpful
If you like stoicism, this is the book for you; there is no better exemplar of the paradigm than the present example. If you dislike stoicism, then this is most assuredly not the book for you. That is, unless you have such an overwhelming interest for either Roman history or of Marcus Aurelius that it would offset your distaste for stoicism.
The great Marcus Aurelius was the closest the world has ever come to realizing Socrates' dream of the infamous "philosopher king." Aurelius was a highly educated, sagacious and kindly man whose reign formed the very apex of the Antonine emperors. Following in the lineage of Hadrian and Antonius Pious, his rule was one of the most magnanimous the world has ever seen.
Aurelius was a deeply troubled man; what follows in these pages are his intensely personal thoughts on the tribulations of the human condition. Why are people so prone to screwing up? Why are cruelty and ignorance the norms of human existence, instead of the exceptions?
Like all of the best Roman emperors, Aurelius held contempt for the human race, but he was also humble enough to realize that he was a part of it. To read these private musings of a long-suffering, sensitive mind is riveting. It is a book well worth reading for the philosopher and historian alike.
I will leave you with one of Aurelius' meditations; one which strikes to the very heart of his stoicism:
"Have I done an unselfish thing? Well then, I have my reward. Keep this thought ever present, and persevere." [p.166]
54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2009
I don't read a lot of philosophy. I'm not sure why, since philosophy is really the province of the Liberal Arts graduate, and that's what I am. Even worse, I was a political science major, and pol-sci is really just applied philosophy. You ask yourself questions like, "What is man's obligation to man?" and "How can a society best benefit everyone involved in it?" and the next thing you know it's three in the morning and you're on your twelfth cup of Denny's coffee.
Arguing the meaning of life in a diner, however, isn't considered to be "real" philosophy. Philosophy these says means making up your own lexicon, creating words to describe concepts that you have spun out of the rhetorical ether - or, in philosophical terminology, "just made up." So you get phrases in modern philosophy that go on for pages and pages, and have so many recursive clauses that you wind up having to go back to the beginning just to figure out where you left off.
So, if you're like me - and it's not impossible that you are - and you don't feel like delving into the murkiest depths of intellectual waters, I can solidly recommend Marcus Aurelius' immortal Meditations. There is no beginning, there is no end - you can open up the book anywhere, read for a while, and then put it down.
Written back in the 2nd century, Meditations is a collection of Marcus' thoughts on life, existence, and how to be a good and moral man. Some of those observations are long, a page or two, but most of them are just a few lines. It's kind of as though Marcus was hanging out at his camp in Carnuntum and he had a Thought. "Pen!" he would yell, "and paper!" He'd scribble his idea down and put it away to be filed away later. Whether he had any great plans for this collection of ideas, we'll never know. He was an Emperor, of course, and it's pretty normal for Emperors to want to make themselves look brilliant in history. But, as you read the book, you realize that Marcus' mind wasn't on history. Why bother, he'd say. It'll all be the same in a thousand years anyway.
Death is ever-present in this text. When you start to worry about whether you're living up to the example set by your ancestors, don't bother - they're dead and gone, and they couldn't care less about who you have become. Are you always concerned with what people will think of you after you die? Why worry about it? You'll be dead, for one thing, and beyond caring, and in any case whatever you have accomplished will be gone when the last person who remembers you is himself dead.
Marcus is very clear in his views on death: it's part of nature, part of the ceaseless change which controls everything in this world. We came into this world, built from the atoms and essences of the dead who had gone before us, and one day we will return to that ceaselessly changing sea of Nature. Our lives are mere moments when measured against the vastness of eternity, and our powers are meaningless against those of the gods and the world that gave birth to us. "Remember that Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,' he said. "All the rest of his life's either past and gone, or not yet revealed."
In this way, there are some definite parallels between Marcus' Stoic philosophy and Zen philosophy, though they're centuries apart. Both Zen and Stoicism emphasize living in the present moment - not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. The only time in which you really exist is right now, and so it should be your only concern. Don't let other people's opinions of you govern your feelings - you can't control them, you shouldn't expect to be able to. You can, however, control yourself. "Will anyone sneer at me?" he asks. "That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer."
Yes, this book is very quotable.
Where Stoicism and Zen would probably part ways is on Marcus' reliance on Reason as a supreme governing power. He maintains that a man's reason is the only thing that he can truly claim as his own, and that it should be ready at hand at all times. In any situation, presented with any person or object, the first thing that a person should do is turn his reason upon it. Figure out what it is, at its root, and once you know that, everything else will become clear.
I'm a big fan of Reason. We're humans, and we're bound to believe stupid things from time to time, but we're also possessed of some very clever brains, and an excellent ability to turn those brains on to solving problems. But far too few people actually use those brains. We allow our passions to override our reason and end up doing stupid things to ourselves and each other. As hard as it may be, I'm with Marcus on this one - without reason, we're not really humans. At best, we're children, at worst we're beasts. It is our duty to the world to understand it, without illusion or self-deception.
Frankly, I think Marcus would be very disappointed at how little progress we've made on this regard. I mean, it's been nearly two thousand years, after all, plenty of time to deal with our superstitions and our illusions. On the other hand, I think he'd be flattered that his words had lasted so long and had influenced so many people.
It's a great text, one that calls from the past to remind us of some very important truths - that we are here, now, and we are each in control of our own lives. We are possessed with a limitless ability to understand our universe, and to not use that reason is to waste the best part of ourselves.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 1998
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the most insightful book I have ever read. I think that young people would especially benefit from Marcus's wisdom. His advice about how to deal with life's trials is invaluable. He teaches that the praise or censure of others is meaningless. This is so important to teenagers trying to discover where they belong in the world. He teaches people to have courage in the face of adversity and to always live their lives by the highest standard.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2006
While this translation is concise and lacks the flowery writing of the George Long version which I've also bought, it remains true to the simplicity of the Stoic lifestyle and the casual writing of someone doing this only for themselves. If you want to satisfy your ego and read something with more flowers, get the George Long version or something else. If you want to understand what Aurelius means and don't care about the difficulty of a book as long as you get something out of it, I'd recommend this because it's probably more accurate in terms of tone and formality, and like another reviewer said before me, it's reads as though Aurelius were right over your shoulder giving you advice.
While some of his theories lack sound proof, he never wrote this for anyone else to read, so he has no reason to go out of his way to prove something to himself. It's up to the reader to find the proof, or refute what he says. It's a very interesting, easily understandable read that comes of as some sort of ancient self-help book. It's advice for living a decent life in a complicated and confusing society, with a limit on your existence in this world. Personally, I'd recommend buying both of the versions I mentioned (you can actually find some george long versions free online) because Hays tends to simplify a lot, but you can pretty much get the same understanding from this easier read version.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2012
The key is death. Forgetting this is what makes life an illusion.
Lie down, close your eyes and try to die. Feel the body giving up and drifting away, gather the strength to focus, not to pass out, to stay alert so you can preserve yourself.
Maintain control in the face of the most elemental fear with an irrevocable determination to fight till the very end and not to succumb to nature. With the death of the body the significance of time becomes minimal - you're still perceiving it but you know it'll be gone, too. You realize that your life was nothing and that you got it all wrong.
You were dead and now you have the chance to live.
You remember only the small things now. The smallest things you missed; you realize how and where you screwed up. You realize: it was all about control. The control you need now to gather the power to survive this trauma. The rest was just a setting: parents, lovers, enemies, religion, kids, career, home; sogar dein Auto!
If only you had been aware of this!
You realize that this is your last chance to control your destiny. Not to forget! Not to let the experience overwhelm you, not to let it put you to sleep.
You understand: if you identify with what you experience, you are lost. To preserve yourself you must dominate your experience! You! Your mind screams: this is not me!!! Whatever you see and feel: this is not me!
You have always been alone!
And you remember the small details: the conflicts, the love, the hate, the anger, the pride, the shame, the guilt, the lies; ...and the fear! That sneaky fear that remained under your radar but you always felt and that you let yourself get used to; all the instances when you forgot, fell asleep and let yourself be used by thoughts and emotions that you never owned.
You were owned!
You have been weak and stupid. You just didn't know!!! The question of control never even came up. Your whole life was a void and now you see that it amounted to nothing. Only now that it's gone it has become clear: this moment is the point. This moment has always been the point from the very beginning. What will you do? What can you do?
Are you going to fall asleep now or triumph?
Nobody really understands the greatest minds without this vantage point. Without experiencing this ultimate struggle, everything is just an abstraction, an illusion.
Marcus Aurelius starts his thoughts by taking stock of what he learned from whom. Taking stock of the "small things" where control and balance must be exercised:
Taking the time; thinking before speaking; not to speak unnecessarily; being considerate; not to get angry because of small things; not to be judgmental; not to daydream; not to be passionate; not to succumb to fame and fortune; how to receive compliments and criticism on an even keel; acting in accordance with one's own nature; not to identify with others, not to be concerned with what others think, understanding and appreciating differences and many other things that require you to use all your powers to preserve yourself, just like on your death bed when it becomes clear what the stakes are.
The greatest lives and the greatest works all exude an intimate aura of death.
This vantage point is what turns mundane activities into rituals and this is what makes the differentiated man. NOT the 80/20 rule, not the ability to introduce balanced scorecards, not the brand message (God forbid: personal band), not executive education programs, celebrity coaches or books by Steve Jobs or Jack Welsh, not a dedication to perfection in product development, not the value investing "philosophy", not anything in the business domain: these are just settings.